Great stories aren’t written; they’re rewritten.
Maybe that’s a cliche, but that’s because it’s generally true. Very few writers are slick enough that they can get away with an unpolished first draft (okay, journalists are a class of very specifically-skilled writers who often have to do this, but I’m talking about my kind here, the ones who have the luxury to take more time over their lovingly crafted prose); many won’t even let anyone else see their first drafts because they’re aware of just how much needs fixing. I’m definitely in that category: I hate it when an agent or editor asks me to just send over my first draft when it’s ready. For me that’s like the dream where you’re out in public in your pyjamas or your underwear and suddenly everyone is looking and pointing.
I don’t want people to see how bad a writer I can be!
So what kinds of things should you look for when you’re doing your best to cover up how bad a writer you can be?
Of course, we’re all different. Most writers cut their first drafts, often quite drastically. I’ve always tended to under-write, though, so while careful pruning is nearly always required I’ve learned also to look for those places where I’ve skimped and which need to be given a bit more space.
Here’s a checklist of things that I look for (ignoring the obvious things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, typos, continuity and so on). Some of them may work for you, too.
- Should I show or should I tell?
This is one of those things that can make a big difference to your word count, not to mention the quality of your story. In my case, I’ll find passages that I’ve skipped through by telling the reader something instead of describing the scene so that the reader sees it. Usually, showing takes more space than telling, which is more of a precis of a scene. Looking for these passages that need more space, dramatising those elements where in my first draft I’ve just summarised – that’s where a lot of the dramatic tension comes from, and for me, rewriting is very much about making the highs higher, the lows lower, and the tension tensioner.
Conversely, there are always scenes that don’t pull their weight. Am I skim-reading as I go through my story? If so, is this because I haven’t made the most of a scene (see above), or because I’ve made too much of it? Sometimes you have to describe the little girl approaching the ancient, cobweb-covered door and reaching for the handle even though she’s always been told not to open that door… and sometimes you just want to say “Lucy opened the door and went outside”. It all depends on the story, and the effect you’re trying to achieve.
- Cut brutally, mercilessly and effectively
And any other adverb. When my old friend and collaborator Eric Brown lived a lot closer to me than he does now, I used to drag him down to my university to do guest writer sessions with my students. One of the tips that students and ex-students have reminded me of most often is very simple: when you think your manuscript is just about done, do a search for “ly”. That will pin down almost every adverb in the piece (are there adverbs that don’t end in -ly?), and 90% of the time you can cut those adverbs without detracting from the story, and nearly always you’re improving it. The improvement comes either from the simple fact that the adverb added nothing in the first place, or from the way it forces you to make sure you’re using the most precise, appropriate verb. Adverbs encourage you to use lazy verbs. Why write “he ran quickly” when he could just have sprinted? The “quickly” has not only – ironically – slowed things down, it’s encouraged you to use a dull verb instead of one that is more specific. Again, why write “he burst into the room explosively”, when bursting into the room is more than enough? (Or even “exploded into the room” if you really want to use that image.)
As I said above, getting slightly ahead of myself, one of the main things I look for when I’m rewriting is the opportunity to make the highs higher, the lows lower… to amplify things. Twenty years ago, Stephen Baxter read through the manuscript of my third novel for me, and one of the most useful things he said was that I should remember what I did to the protagonist of my first novel: in that novel I’d succeeded in taking my protagonist right down to the lowest of lows before building him back up again; in the manuscript Steve had just read, he told me I should do the same again – take Katya low, before bringing her back up again; make readers care, and they always care more when the stakes are higher, the risks and costs greater. The result was a character who took centre stage in a book with three main viewpoints, and one of my favourites of all my characters.
Maybe a flat scene still has something to contribute, in which case the obvious solution is to rework it until it’s earning its keep. And one way to rework it is to combine it with another scene. What is it that that particular scene contributes to the story? Can’t that happen in the scene before or the scene after? The same goes for characters, particularly in short fiction where every prominent character really has to justify their existence. Could the guy in scene one who helps the victim also be the witness brought in three scenes later? Making those two entirely separate characters might, of course, be more true to life, but true to life means messier, more confusing, more complicated. Sometimes a story will work far better if you’re more economical with your characters: recycle, reuse, recombine.
- Shake, baby, shake!
That scene that persists in being a bit flat? That character who never shakes of the two-dimensionality of the page? Sometimes you can analyse and work out exactly where the problem lies. Other times… well, other times you just have to suck it and see. If that scene in the restaurant doesn’t work (just how many scenes have we seen in restaurants and bars?), then put your characters in the queue waiting to go in, getting soaked by the rain and hassled by people who want their place in the queue. That character who really just makes you yawn? Well, simple and crude, but why not make the girl a boy, or the boy a girl, make the young man a wizened old leper. Totally change some aspect of that person and suddenly you have to reassess everything, from simple descriptions to your understanding of why they are now standing in the middle of that scene with a gun and a hostage, surrounded by aliens in long black coats. Okay, I’m getting carried away, but that scene is totally different if the central character is a young girl out of her depth, a heroic – and probably rather bland – action hero, or that old leper. Shake things up and make them interesting again!
- Incomplete sentences
I see this so often, both in my own writing and in the work of students. A sentence that’s not quite complete, a sentence that dispenses with connectors like ‘and’ and ‘the’. Sometimes this kind of thing can work well for effect, but only when used sparingly. More often than not, it interrupts the flow and forces the reader to re-read to make sure they haven’t missed something. Isaac Asimov used to talk about transparent prose, writing that is like a sheet of glass that you look through, rather than, say, a stained glass window that you can’t. While I’d argue that there’s a place for flashy, clever, lit’ry sentences (some of my favourite writing would fall into that category, and I’ve even – much to my surprise – been accused of committing literature), there’s also a lot of value in Asimov’s argument. Indeed, if you look at any great prose stylist, it’s a fairly safe bet that most of them use a hell of a lot of transparent sentences to wrap around the pyrotechnics. We just don’t see them. What I aim for is exactly that: transparent prose that works, with the occasional perfect phrase or metaphor that will resonate. And clunky, failed, arty sentences ain’t that.
Oh, there are probably a lot more things that I look for and find, but these are the main ones that I’m aware of, developed from a couple of decades or so of getting familiar with my own bad writing and trying to make it better. What are your failings? What do you look for to make sure you’re not going to be that person out on the High Street in his or her underwear with everyone pointing and staring?